The "UGLY GENIUS" Matrix
A PERCEPTION-ALTERING ESSAY about GOD-TIER WEIRD HEAT
Congratulations — by opening today’s Blackbird Spyplane, you’ve proven with 1 click that you are a PROFOUND-DOPENESS CHASER.
“Thank you,” yr saying. “This is a miraculous newsletter enjoyed by millions of sacred beings (human & non-) across the planet, and I’m so happy it exists… but what’s the difference between chasing profound dopeness and chasing regular, run-of-the-mill dopeness?”
The fact you’d even ask this demonstrates yr intellectual integrity and the safe, welcoming vibes of the SpyFriend community — incredible.
The difference is that not only do you have Mach 3+ taste levels BUT when you are searching for the elusive energy known as “dopeness,” you know that perceiving the MOST TRULY DOPE s**t requires a hybridized, tree-like state of rootedness and flexibility, where you KNOW WHO YOU ARE but are also ready to QUESTION CORNY “ESTABLISHED VERITIES” … in pursuit of PROTEAN RADICAL PHATNESS!!
A powerful case in point: Every so often u might encounter an UNFAMILIAR JAWN — an artwork, a design object, a building — and, with precognitive QUICKNESS, deem it “UGLY AS S**T”…
Maybe the jawn offends yr instinctive notions of “structural harmony”… Maybe it catches on some economic-culturally constructed tripwire and registers as vulgar or “déclassé”…
AND YET… There’s something about it you just can’t shake… It sticks in yr head like an ungainly unresolved melody… And, with time and consideration, this very jawn that initially seemed immutably, nauseatingly wack actually re-shapes your AESTHETIC HORIZONS, till you finally decide that, damn, you are in fact beholding a COMPLEXLY BEAUTIFUL PARADIGM-SHIFTER whose avant-garde greatness u were initially incapable of processing!! Call it the “queasy sublime.”
I touched on this dynamic in the newsletter a couple weeks back, re: the Air Max ‘97, when I was discussing sneakercraft with ex-Nike ACG designer Nathan VanHook. The ‘97 is a landmark of modern sneaker-genius, but truth be told, the first time I saw it, its weird concentric-circle architecture and maximalist-minimalist reflective monotone colorway turned my stomach… “Nooo!!! Cool sneakers don’t look like that!” I whined on some soyjak-meme s**t, a frightened prisoner of jawn-virginal small-mindedness.
I was so unconsciously accustomed to sneakers that were segmented into panels that my reflexive position was that ALL sneakers should be structured that way — and yet here was a sneaker that REJECTED that principle of segmentation and replaced it with a TRIPPY logic of INTERCONNECTEDNESS & DISORIENTATION: undulating rings encircled the shoe (over Nike’s first-ever full-foot air chamber), blurring any clear distinction between the toe box, the vamp, the quarter panel, etc… and I was GROSSED OUT !
Reactions like this can feel especially strong in adolescence, when we’re FEROCIOUSLY DOCTRINAIRE about defining our “taste” but also have LOTS TO LEARN about life & the jawn sciences. But they recur in adulthood, too ... It’s fascinating: The human brain seems paradoxically hard-wired to delight in the new & unfamiliar while simultaneously RECOILING from things that it does not immediately understand.
In the life of the wise SpyConnoisseur, though, this recoil can become a beacon — there are moments, like with Young Jonah and the Air Max ‘97, when a jawn reorganizes / bends / breaks “the rules” in a way that feels destabilizingly ugly at first … then “ugly” transforms into “post-ugly” … and PROFOUND DOPENESS emerges from the WRECKAGE of our MIND PRISONS…
Shoes, out of all jawns, allow for the most leeway in terms of “rockable experimentalism.” The ugly <~> genius footwear graph, pictured above, is provisional & up for constant debate, but as of right now, the new Rick Owens “Turbodrks” feel very ugly and not very genius. Interestingly, they are less ugly but less genius than the Vibram 5-Fingers, which in turn are much uglier than the Balenciaga Triple S’s, which are themselves not as ugly (and not as genius) as the Keen Yoguis. The Merrell Hydromoc is uglier than the Paraboot Michael but slightly more genius, and it’s not as ugly as its father, the Croc —but definitely not as genius. The Keen Uneek is basically equal in genius to the Croc, but a smidge less ugly. Time has been good to the Adidas Kobe II, which remains legendarily ugly but whose bizarre genius shines brighter today than ever.
And the cult-hit Hathenbruck Chillbie struck me as intoxicatingly ugly when we wrote about it last summer — yesterday Blackbird Spyplane discovered that u can buy the exact same PVC boot in uncut original form for $14.99 from this utility-workwear supply store and $14 thru Walmart. Hathenbruck sell their “hand cut” clog for $120 and a mid variant for $140 — I’m not sure if this is a case of LESS genius, 😈EVIL😈 genius or MORE POST-DUCHAMPIAN genius?!
Ugly <~> genius epiphanies happen across categories… A few recent cases, off the dome: the first time I saw some NAUSEATINGLY BULBOUS / ACTUALLY GENIUS Hokas in an issue of Outside, ~7 years ago. The first time I saw Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, whose claustrophobic set, static pacing, stilted tone and slow-burn-disturbing story I hated so much 45 minutes in I was about to jump ship — but I stuck with it and was calling it POWERFULLY BRILLIANT by the end. And I’m still working thru the layers of my reaction to the Tesla “Cybertruck,” but this much is clear: I first thought it was a ridiculous monstrosity, then I decided it’s “profoundly dope” — and these 2 positions aren’t mutually exclusive!!
On some runway s**t, designers like Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela have had numerous revolutionary ugly <~> genius insights, playing with form, proportion and materials in ways that can feel UPSETTING at first, before the world GETS FAMILIAR, at which point they feel EPOCHALLY POPPING …
Here’s a FORMATIVE non-jawn example I’ll never forget: One afternoon when I was 16 I was watching The Box — an NYC television channel that played lots of rap videos — and a STRANGE clip came on for a STRANGE track I’d never heard: Missy Elliott’s first single, “The Rain.”
Make no mistake — Missy is, like her longtime friend & producer Timbaland, a beautiful genius without equal in the history of western art, and she’s been so influential that it might be hard to remember/imagine how unnervingly WEIRD this song felt on first encounter. Built around a hollowed-out Ann Peebles sample, the beat is FUNKY AS F**K but it doesn’t move anything like the way other hip-hop beats moved back then. It’s cut into oblong chunks by twitching, irregular percussion… Missy raps in a hypnotically narcotized tone, leaving a bunch of empty space in her verses, deepening the track’s sense of rhythmic deformity … All of which gets visually extrapolated in the iconic Hype Williams video, where (with a debt to underground NYC “ugly<~>genius” hero Leigh Bowery) Missy SPASM-DANCES into a fish-eye lens while rocking what looks like an inflated patent-leather garbage bag…??
I remember FREEZING UP as the video played, gripped by a low-level, unmistakable NAUSEA, as if the laws of physics were re-mapping themselves around me. But then I wanted to hear the track again… and again… to open myself up to it & figure out why it had such an intense effect, paying it close attention like a CODE-BREAKER scrutinizing an ALIEN CIPHER …
Until, finally, I expanded my d*mn parameters and realized that my NAUSEA had in fact been E.S.P. (Extrasensory Spyplane Perception) alerting me to a piece of art so innovative it required me to re-calibrate my entire aesthetic universe to accommodate it!!
Ever since, I’ve consulted that feeling of queasiness in the search for NEXT-LEVEL FIRE S**T. “Nausea,” I say, “do you have something to teach me? Are you trying to lead me to a higher order of consciousness — via the UGLY-GENIUS MATRIX??”
Obviously there are false positives. Thru trial & error, u gotta distinguish PROFOUND PARADIGM-SHIFTING DOPENESS from mere NOVELTY and/or cool but ultimately ephemeral trends. Sometimes things are just irredeemably ugly, or, more often, they’re too boringly ugly to think much about — so cherish those rare ugly-genius unicorns when u spot them, players !!
Do YOU have an ugly <~> genius epiphany ?? We asked a few COOL SpyFriends to tell us about a thing they now recognize as GENIUS, but found REPULSIVE on a first encounter… U can share yrs in the comments !
☮ Rachel Tashjian of GQ (and the invitation-only Natural Style-Email Newsletter “Opulent Tips”) framed her VIRTUOUSLY COUNTERINTUITIVE OPEN-MINDEDNESS as a FLAW: “Here's my problem,” she said. “If I think something is ugly, I assume that means it must be amazing. The most recent experience I had with that would be Kiko. I saw his Spring 2019 stuff and thought, ‘I don’t get it, which means he must be our next generation-defining genius.’ I actually felt thrilled that I might not understand what I was seeing.” Yes — this is the dizzy thrill we are talkin’ about!!
☮ Laia Garcia-Furtado, features director of Garage, told us she “had a journal when I was a teen where I listed all my dos and don’ts, and SO many of my don’ts are now the things I love the most! High-waisted pants, shirts buttoned all the way up... 😂😂🥺. The most recent example are these weird little mesh slippers from The Row, which look like water shoes. I think they do nothing, really, for a foot or an outfit, and the sole is the least amount of sole needed to make a shoe wearable in the real world. They are a non-shoe! But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it and decided I NEEDED them, and even when I went to the store and tried them on I thought ‘god these shoes are so ugly I love them so much’ and the woman working there looked at me like I was crazy.”
☮ Writer and SSENSE editor Durga Chew-Bose highlighted the role DEEP PERSONAL SENTIMENT can play in elevating jawns from the realm of the ugly to that of profound dopeness — she chose “my stepmom’s porcelain Staffordshire dogs, with black and gilded details. First time I saw them, they kind of scared me—now I see them as the eyes of my parents’ home (also maybe scary!) ... but sweet, too. I like when intimate objects come in pairs, like salt and pepper shakers; everyone needs a friend. I’ve been collecting ceramic dogs — I recommend it for anyone who’s feeling low and has a penchant for zoning out.”
☮ And Online Ceramics’ Elijah Funk thought for approx. 40 seconds before picking the 1987 album Scum by UK grindcore icons Napalm Death, which he bought on CD when he was 13, urged on by an older friend in rural Ohio. Elijah f**ked with it at first, but about a minute into track 2, “the vocals seemed… completely off-time? The guitar didn’t seem to match any particular rhythm? The vocalist sounded like a cartoon. It was flat-out ugly. I was completely confused as to why this would be considered anything of legend. It just wasn’t cohesive or well-composed. I was scared, maybe even mad at it — but simultaneously intrigued.
“Long story short, I grew to love it. It wasn’t about rhythm, except at points, as if they’re throwing you a buoy in an ocean of chaos. It was exhilarating: The noise, the distant howls, the unconventional approach to every single instrument on that record had more to do with Don Cherry and Sun Ra than the Sex Pistols or Ramones, in my estimation. It taught me how to think beyond comfort, to investigate and read about who makes what we enjoy and why they’re doing it. It taught me to experiment, open my ears and heart, and try things that may not seem cohesive or thought-out in the chase of freedom of spirit — because what is there to lose?”
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